For more than two years, Kohistany served as a combat interpreter for the Canadian Forces in the Kandahar and Helmand provinces of Afghanistan.
He would translate meetings, workshops, training and conferences with local elders, the Afghan National Army and police. He also helped with interrogations and investigations of prisoners, and translated documents and intelligence reports from sources on the ground.
When not in combat mode, Kohistany would advise his Canadian commanders on Afghan cultural, religious and tribal customs or teach their soldiers Pashto and Dari languages.
At least twice, he and the troops he was with were attacked by insurgents, including the incident on May 17, 2006, when his convoy commander, Capt. Nichola Goddard, was killed in an ambush by the Taliban. He helped his crew get her out of the turret so the medic could perform first aid.
“I was in one Light Armoured Vehicle with about nine soldiers. We all got injured, some more seriously. I got some small shrapnel on my neck and I took them out right there,” recalled Kohistany, who worked for the Canadian military in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2007.
Being labelled “the eyes, tongue and ears of the infidels and occupiers,” Afghans who have worked for foreign governments — and their families — have already been targeted and faced constant threats to their lives.
Now, with the United States and its NATO allies withdrawing all troops on the ground in Afghanistan by Aug. 31, and the Taliban insurgents reclaiming many of the territories, Kohistany fears he is doomed.
“The threat has increased day by day. You can easily see the Taliban slogans on the walls. You can see Taliban flags over the houses,” said Kohistany, who asked his full name be withheld for his safety. “Targeted killings are heating up.”
As he sees other foreign governments such as the U.S., United Kingdom and other European countries gearing up plans to resettle their former Afghan helpers, Kohistany said he feels abandoned by Canada.
“If I had known that, one day, we would be left behind by the Canadian government, I would never have joined the Canadian army to work and fight with them, shoulder by shoulder, against the Taliban and to put my life in danger,” he sighed.
“I feel very disappointed.”
In a letter last week to Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, Veteran Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, three retired Canadian major-generals called on the federal government to restart a resettlement program for Afghan civilians such as Kohistany.
“There is an acute need to ensure the safety and well-being of those Afghan nationals who served alongside Canadian soldiers, development officers and diplomats during our intervention,” said the letter signed by the three former task force commanders, Denis Thompson, Dean Milner and Dave Fraser.
“Many Canadian veterans are in contact with the Afghans who served alongside them, and their stories are harrowing. These people are considered ‘comrades-in-arms’ and their plight is affecting these veterans — as it should all Canadians.”
Specifically, the veterans are asking the federal government to immediately reintroduce a special immigration program that helped resettle 780 Afghans and their families in Canada between 2009 and 2011.
The Afghan-Canadian Interpreters — a grassroots advocacy group made up mostly of war veterans, active military members and supporters — has identified at least 115 former interpreters, cultural advisers and locally employed people who, they say, are in need of Canada’s protection.
Volunteers have been in touch with them and compiled a list for Ottawa. Time, they say, is running out.
“Western presence will no longer exist in the country. Therefore, there’ll be zero protection for any of them,” says the group’s spokesperson, Dave Morrow, a retired lieutenant who served in Kandahar in 2010 and 2011.
“We don’t have a plan. We haven’t got a list other than what we’ve created as an organization. That’s where we’re filling in the gap, to hopefully provide some sort of visibility and awareness to this massive humanitarian problem that is unfolding very, very quickly.”
Canada’s initial resettlement program was restricted to the Afghan civilians who provided 12 months of consecutive service to the Canadians between October 2007 and July 2011. To qualify, they also had to provide testimonies from their Canadian supervisors as well as evidence they were at risk in Afghanistan.
Immigration Minister Mendicino’s office has told reporters that Afghan civilians ineligible under the previous program may apply to immigrate to Canada under other immigration programs or for humanitarian and compassionate considerations.
Morrow says those options are not viable.
“If you were in a war-torn country with no internet access, cellular service and maybe an iPhone 3 to complete all your paperwork, with no access to printers, or paper or anything of the sort, that statement itself was troubling,” he said.
Kohistany has been in hiding with his wife and children in Kabul, a relatively safer region where most foreign diplomats are located. They have moved many times to avoid insurgents’ detection and threats, he said. Just two months ago, two motorcycle riders shot at his house with an AK-47.
“There is no option for us. Roads and key borders are all controlled by the Taliban. We’re like prisoners. The only option or hope we have is to find or ask someone or a government to come and pick us up to a safe country,” said the now-36-year-old, who has a university degree in law and political science.
He was ineligible to Ottawa’s previous resettlement program because he left the force before October 2007.
“We are in the middle of life and death. The insurgents have occupied more territories and found more influence in big cities and created more threats to everyone. Life has become more dangerous than ever.”
Retired corporal Robin Rickards first met Kohistany in 2006 during his first of three tours in Afghanistan and the two became good friends because they spent a lot of time on the front-line together.
He said the armies wouldn’t have been able to do their jobs without the help of these interpreters.
“The biggest thing that they did, in terms of saving Canadians’ lives, is they were essential in monitoring the ICOM radios. All of the telecommunications between the Taliban field elements came through two-way radio,” says Rickards, who retired in 2010 and now lives in Thunder Bay.
“The interpreters would be passing us the real-time conversations and also adding their take on whether it was legitimate. … The longer somebody stays employed with the Canadians or the coalition forces, the better they get at determining whether it’s legit, but it increases the risk they face in the long run.”
Rickards says these civilian staff for foreign governments are consider “apostates” by the Taliban and that Canada has more than a moral obligation to save them. And they should be in the front of the line for resettlement for saving Canadian troops’ lives, he added.
Wherever Canadian militaries are deployed, they need local translators to serve as cultural and linguistic ambassadors, he said — whether it’s Ukraine, Latvia or Mali.
“The fate of our interpreters in Afghanistan will be seen by people in other countries,” Rickards warned. “Folks in these other places we go in the future will be wary of helping us because they’ll be wary of the consequences when we leave. And that will impede our ability to succeed in those missions.”
Marcus Powlowski, Liberal MP for Thunder Bay—Rainy River, has been a staunch advocate for the Afghan civilians.
“They risked their lives for our country,” Powlowski said.
Ottawa has an ambitious goal to bring in 401,000 permanent residents this year, and in the past the government has resettled tens of thousands of vulnerable people from wars and violence in Syria and Myanmar, he added. In his view, the Afghan civilians in question would represent a drop in the bucket.
Powlowski said that he has been told by his government that any resettlement plan in Afghanistan is logistically challenging because of Canada’s limited presence in the country as well as the security concerns.
“I don’t think it’s at all insurmountable that we do this in Afghanistan. It could be as simple as sending a plane, letting (in) all the people because a lot of these people are in touch with our office,” he said.
“Now, I’m not advocating we do this. But potentially it could be as simple as sending a plane. There’s some source of verifying who they are, making sure that they have no weapons on them and flying them out and doing all the bureaucratic stuff afterwards.”
Sayed Shah Sharifi, a former Afghan interpreter who resettled in Canada in 2012, knows first hand how the Taliban treats the “infidels” and their families. Five of his family members — his sister and her son; his brother’s wife and two kids — were killed by insurgents due to their connection to him.
“These are not just threats. These are real risks,” says Sharifi, who served side by side with Canadian troops in Kandahar between 2007 and 2010 and now works as an electrician in Toronto.
With the insurgents making significant gains in recent months, he said, there’s a growing fear that they would take hold of Afghan internal government data to track down these former employees of the western governments with personal identification information.
“The Taliban may not have found those in hiding yet, but if they are found, they are dead.”